Following Her Calling

Eleanor Haskin's family has owned this Waitsfield telephone company for 98 of its 100 years

by Julia Lynam

On the approach to Waitsfield village in the Mad River Valley, the headquarters building of the local independent telephone company stands sentinel. Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom has grown with the community over the last 100 years, experiencing the transformation of a once-isolated rural community into a magnet for skiers and tourists, and participating in its subsequent efforts to reduce its economic dependence on tourist and seasonal business.

Eleanor Haskin, president of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom in Waitsfield, has brought her children into the company her father bought 98 years ago. Gregg, left, is chief financial officer; Eric is a field engineer. The wall behind them features some of Haskin's collection of antique telephone equipment.

Founded as the Waitsfield and Fayston Telephone Co. in 1904, the company installed lines and maintained telephone service to 5,000 customers in the Mad River Valley In 1994, the acquisition of a portion of the lines formerly owned by GTE expanded its reach into the Champlain Valley as far south as Cornwall, and almost quadrupled its customer base.

Over the last 100 years, Waitsfield Telecom has grown into much more than just a telephone company. Keeping pace with technology, in 1982 it established Waitsfield Cable, which provides cable television to about 3,500 subscribers in the Mad River Valley. 1997 saw the founding of subsidiary company Green Mountain Access, an Internet provider. The company even dabbles successfully in publishing, producing award-winning local telephone directories for the Mad River Valley, the Champlain Valley and two areas outside its network: Stowe and Waterbury.

One family has owned this company since 1906, when Alton Farr, the father of company president Eleanor Haskin, took ownership control. The company's history is well documented with photographs, official records, old advertising materials and anecdotes. Haskin also has in her private collection of antique telephones, switchboards and other equipment, a rare record of the history of telephony in the United States.

It's been a family company for 98 years. Haskin's husband, Dana, a reserved man who prefers to stay out of the public eye, is chairman of the board. The couple took the helm of the company in 1959, returning to Vermont from Texas, where Dana was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, at the request of Haskin's mother, Eunice Farr, who had been running the company single-handedly since Alton passed away in 1940.

Company-wide, Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom applies the Baldrige Criteria, national standards that measure management effectiveness. Pictured are Roger Nishi (left), vice president of industry relations, Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing and business development, Pat Labnon, customer service manager, and Dan Owen, vice president of network.

Now, the Haskins' three sons are involved: Eric is a field engineer; Scott is an installer and repairman; and Gregg is chief financial officer. Their daughter, Susan, served as a very popular customer service manager until her untimely death from cancer in 2003.

"It's hard to describe the depth that we feel toward the company," says Eleanor Haskin. "When Mom said that she was sick and that the Public Service Board was possibly going to remove the franchise, there was no question. We didn't even discuss whether we were going to come home or not, we just did it. There's a deep-rooted sense of pride and responsibility that comes from the way you grow up, what you see your parents doing, how they react in situations it becomes very ingrained."

Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom is one of about 1,300 independent telephone companies scattered throughout the United States and Canada, most of which were never part of the Bell Telephone network, forerunner of the current four large regional telephone companies. Many of the independent companies are subscriber-owned cooperatives and some, like Waitsfield Telecom, are still family-owned.

Waitsfield Telecom is one of very few service companies where a real person answers the phone. Liz Douillard, left, customer service supervisor, and Lisa McNaulty, customer service representative, work in the reception area, which doubles as the repair desk so customers won't need to be transferred.

Employees of Waitsfield Telecom are very active in the industry on the national, regional and state levels. They participate in the boards and committees of the three major industry associations that influence the conduct of the telephone industry in the United States. "There's the United States Telephone Association, the big one, with the Bell operating companies, suppliers and competitors," Haskin explains; "then OPASTCO, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telephone Companies, which is for smaller companies, with lobbying, education and training activities geared towards companies our size; and the National Telephone Cooperative Association, which was founded for cooperatives but has programs that are equally good for us."

In 1980 Haskin became the first female president of any U.S. telephone association when she was appointed president of OPASTCO, at that time called Organization for the Preservation and Advancement of Small Telephone Companies. She was also the first female president of the Telephone Association of New England, from 1981 to 1984.

Roger Nishi, Waitsfield Telecom's vice president for industry relations, serves on the OPASTCO board and as president of the Telephone Association of Vermont. "Participating in industry associations is akin to participating in the community," he says. "We all learn from one another. In the Telephone Association of Vermont, we actively work in regulatory proceedings and share consulting costs with other small companies. In the national associations, we learn what's going on at the federal level and help to influence it."

While it keeps an eye on the wider world, the company is firmly grounded in providing the services its customers want. For instance, this is one of the few service companies where a real person always answers the phone. "You can call and speak to somebody you know," says Susan Roy, who, from her vantage point as executive director of the Sugarbush Chamber of Commerce, is well placed to assess the difference that highly developed communications technology and personal customer service make to businesses in the area.

"The people at Waitsfield Telecom are extremely generous to the community, hosting Web sites for nonprofits and supporting local events," she continues, "and they are always trying to find ways to excel as a service. The high level of technology they provide is a real pull, enabling people to live in a resort community with all the access to professional communication services that they would expect in a big city. This is one crucial reason why we have companies located here that are nothing to do with tourism."

The CEO of one of those companies, Don Mayer of Waitsfield-based Apple specialist Small Dog Electronics, confirms Roy's assessment. "We've been doing business with Waitsfield Telecom for many years," he says. "Our business is based on the Internet, and our connectivity is crucial to us. We can't tolerate any down time. They've been providing T1 and DSL connections for us for more than 10 years. They brought broadband into this valley way ahead of anyone in Vermont, and they've always been on the cutting edge, just a phone call or a page away, working closely with us to make sure we have the telephone and Internet connections we need."

Fundamental to this, according to Haskin, has been the establishment of a "superior" senior management team, composed of family members and others. That's come about, says Nishi, by selecting people who are go-getters, who want to succeed and are willing to learn. "You pick the right people and then ensure that they never have a chance to rest on their laurels. There's a formal review process and educational goals for everyone every year we go out and learn something about the industry, management skills or quality control."

Throughout the company, Waitsfield Telecom applies the Baldrige Criteria, national standards against which organizations can measure the effectiveness of their management practices. They also use the Balanced Scorecard system to interpret the strategic initiatives of the company at the operational level, serving as the basis for setting individual annual goals.

Besides local and long-distance telephone service, Waitsfield Telecom serves about 3,500 cable subscribers, has been on the cutting edge of broadband service in Vermont, and publishes four award-winning phone directories. Bill Fogg, network planner, stands near the DSL access multiplexer.

"We've turned the employee triangle upside down," says Haskin. "We are always asking how we know that we have good customer service, and we use surveys to find out what customers think. We have a lot of team-setting of goals, and the people who do the work are empowered to make decisions. For example, customer service representatives are empowered to authorize rebates if necessary, and, as they are also the repair desk, when a customer calls he doesn't have to get passed on to someone else."

Since the first telephone transmission by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the industry has never stood still. "We try our best to keep up with new technology, whatever that may be," says son Gregg. "It can be hard to make the leap into something new because this is a very capital-intensive industry. One thing we are constantly doing is expanding the network to install DSL fiber optic cable to make sure that the customer's best option is to stay with us."

As Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom Company heads confidently into its second century, one thing is certain, Haskin says. "The changes are going to come ever more rapidly. You can be sure that in the next five years we'll be talking about something we haven't even heard of yet."

Originally published in January 2005 Business People-Vermont